A Market for Ideas
By Maria Bellissimo and Simon Collingwood
In these tough times with Parliament shut down, where attention is focused on the complexity of a national and global calamity, all else becomes secondary. It is easy to see as a distant issue any communications and stakeholder engagement for anything that is not directly related to the effort to tackle the epidemic. And in many ways that is right: in this instance, the Government’s attention is elsewhere, Parliamentarians are thinking about their communities, and businesses and organisations are busy keeping their employees safe while trying to secure their future.
With Government guidance and measures being updated on an almost daily basis, the priority and main contribution from public affairs and communications professionals is to provide information and “interpret” new policy and schemes to make them easily accessible. But, while dealing with the emergency is of course the priority, it is imperative that we look to the future and think hard about what the economy, policy, and political landscape will look on the other side.
Building resilience at a time of crisis
As with any business or organisational priority, we don’t only focus on the play of the ball now, but critically on where it is going.
We do know that we will come through this crisis period. The virus will drain us, but not defeat us. And at that time, our society will return to focus on a broader set of issues. Indeed, on the margins of the crisis, conversations about the big issues continue: climate change; innovation; the economy of the future (as much as the future of the economy); skills and education; inclusion and diversity; what kind of houses, communities, commercial and amenity space matters for the future; and what role devolution may play in the future exercise of power in the UK.
Parliament’s select committees have been authorised to proceed with their work remotely; in fact, they are already looking at the impact the epidemic is having on different sectors and -most importantly- what it all means for “after”. Local Authorities have been given the powers to meet and act through virtual mechanisms. Parliament is now allowed to hold departmental questions and even PMQs virtually, and eventually even votes will be done remotely with only a minority of MPs present in the Chamber. This Mother of Parliaments is being hauled into the digital age; what changes might this herald for our MPs less able to be in Westminster permanently due to restricted mobility, ill-health or perhaps those on m/paternity leave? Could we dream of Digital Agoras in Westminster and across our regions and towns?
Some of these discussions are moving in new, unexpected directions, their course responding to the new normal. If we look carefully around us and beyond the pandemic headlines, there have been some episodes that should give us a lot to think about. In an intervention often likened to the 2008 bailout of banks, the Government has announced an unprecedented set of measures to support businesses and keep the economy afloat during the lockdown. The public response, however, is very different now. Instead of the silent acceptance about banks being prioritised in 2008, businesses have been under a high level of scrutiny from the public. Those who have been found wanting have been the subject of stark criticism that has driven them to review their positions.
The backlash against established as well as less known companies that acted with no regard for their employees or their impact on society confirms a trend identified by the Harvard Business School a decade ago. When a crisis hits, the public (and consumers) turns to organisations and businesses that reflect the values; those who magnetise through trust. This reaction points towards a future where businesses might be expected to play a bigger part in society, not only in the economy. As the former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said in a recent article for The Economist, in the post COVID-19 economy, “public values help shape private value”.
News of resurgent wildlife, cleaner air, cleaner waters and lower levels of emissions due to large parts of the industrialised world being in lockdown has also livened up the debate around Net Zero. Is our current response to COVID-19 a dress rehearsal for a more thorough review of our behaviours and practices? What does it tell us about a concerted global response? If we can afford to face such disruption and economic risk to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic, how much further should we be prepared to go to avoid a complete climate breakdown that would kill hundreds of millions and vanquish whole regions and countries? Above all, once the emergency is over, what can we try to retain of this new environment-friendly normal that could make a real difference in achieving Net Zero? Or will governments around the world, when faced with a recession, retrench behind well-known nationally oriented stimulus policies without any regard for the environment or global co-operation?
And while we are all stuck at home, rediscovering the importance of solidarity within communities, but also dealing with restrictions on the services, goods and foods we can access, what are the skills that are really essential? What are the high-value jobs for the future? How will this shift our thinking about AI, automation and equality? Will this be the end of globalisation as we know it? The list of issues and questions is much, much longer and covers all sectors of the economy and all aspects of society.
Now that we are settled into this new lifestyle and have -at least partially- figured out what the Government support schemes and guidelines mean for our families and businesses, it is time to look at the big issues and new reality already (re)emerging on the horizon. It is increasingly clear that the exit strategy will be very slow and gradual and that many aspects of our lockdown life will stay with us for a long time: home-working, social distancing, new ways to engage and network, new patterns of consumption.
The role of strategic communications at this time is to work with businesses and organisations to identify their strengths, how these will play in the post COVID-19 landscape, and how they can be communicated to policymakers. Engaging in this “market of ideas” now means having the best opportunity to not only contribute to that future, but -crucially- to shape it.
This is the point of communications. Like any communications device, it is a tool. It is about helping to advance an organisational priority; to interpret the mood music, understand legislation; to advocate, to campaign, to contribute to decision making. All actions that are critical to any number of organisations, whether business, civic, educational or charity.
So why does it matter now?
Relationships – we trade on them. Continue to nurture the trust now because you will need it later. Stay visible. Adapt to make the most of the numerous new technologies that help us keep in touch.
Plan – think about how the current situation is going to develop and how your perspective can have a bearing on how we collectively shape the future.
Content – We need to be creative. We will all be affected by this in different ways. And our messaging needs to reflect that and adapt to new forms and tools of communication.
Data – Understand the context and listen. Stay attuned to what people are saying. To inform any future communications strategy, you need to understand the context and where, when and how to access.
Strategic communications provides a set of skills and capabilities that matter when communicating an organisation’s messages and values to stakeholders and for influencing the public decision-making process.
Thinking about goals is a critical starting point. Beyond that, as the often-quoted Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”